“Grey Champions, young Americans and the idea of America.”

Maine’s Senior Colleges and the Coming of Age in America Game Loft Program.

                Duncan Newcomer

“Prepare youth: Treat the young as the nation’s highest priority, but don’t do their work for them.”
Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy”

We believe that the fabric of our national life can be strengthened. Using history, factual information and an awakened imagination, we hope to help reshape our future through the Idea of America curriculum. Through the Idea of America Network we have taught values and history in Senior Colleges in Belfast and Brunswick over the past three years. 

In addition in a small seasoned program in Belfast we have also engaged students in an after school program called “Coming of Age in America,” a way of learning history “by being history”.

Last year we took this dramatic role-play method of narrating American life from the high school level to the senior college level. The experiment succeeded in showing that a new way of learning the values and the legacy of our democracy would engage seniors as it had young people.

The curriculum for “The Idea of America” course is part of a national project created by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and The Idea of America Network. It aims to deepen the quality of civic dialogue and engagement in America. The course and curriculum have been approved to be listed in the Osher Life Long Learning Institute resources guide based at Northwestern University.

The course uses the vocabulary of values, such as Equality and Unity, with the legacy of our past leaders, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King, Jr., to strengthen our participation in the future of our country and world. 

Along with readings, lecture and discussion, our home-grown (Game Loft/Coming of Age in America) method of dramatic enactment is used to deepen and enliven our role in the common good and the development of our best selves.

The goal is to see whether people on opposite sides of issues can find practical ground in commonly held values rooted in our history. We are eager to share this method and material with other Senior Colleges in Maine as it is being shared around the country through The Idea of America Network.

This is a creative way to teach the curriculum of the Idea of America in a Senior College setting.  Because many Senior College attendees are concerned about the lack of civic values and history taught to young there is an addition manual for using this curriculum and method to engage young people in learning about America. The hope is that elders in the seventeen Senior Colleges in Maine would take the Idea of America course with the goal of turning around and teaching young people in a variety of settings the values at stake in America and our civic institutions and history. 

The curriculum originates from work done at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a new book called “The Idea of America, Our Values, Our Legacy, Our Future” by John O. Wilson the founding director of the Idea of America Network. The course prepares mentors for teaching the young the Idea of America. 

Fantasy can be the real teacher when history is re-enacted in roles play games as we saw in the high school history program called the Coming of Age in America. The values defined in the Idea of America curriculum emerged in the COA curriculum which that semester featured Maine from November 29, 1852 to September 1, 1860. The curriculum took us from the opening of the one-room school session in Chartwell Settlement in the fall of 1852 to the political rallies at the New Salem Agricultural Fair of September of 1860 and the coming Presidential election. History moved mightily. But the eight young boys in our program only experienced these events—as in life itself—one day at a time. Values in history became known and remembered from the flow of daily enacted events.  Role-play magnified the reality of events and the values at stake.

In the weekly class sessions, which also featured food and music, role playing made real all that is imaginable from history. The background of the 1850’s served as a stage for thoughts feelings and actions. The values and events at stake in the Idea of America at that time were experienced in open-ended game choices defined by real historical events. 

When you are young and read a history book and feel transported you are still a youth in a chair with a book and your enlivened imagination. This curriculum relocates your consciousness historically, transporting your body and interactions with peers and adults also participating in “your” fantasy curriculum—the history that made this country what it is. Dramatic role play, a little larger than life, becomes your personal knowledge of history.

In the late 1950’s The Kingston Trio sang an ironic song about poor Charlie riding on the MTA in Boston, stuck forever without the coins to get off. The song was introduced with the comic parody, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The lyrics were actually conceived as a part of a local Boston political campaign and election. But more importantly it heralded the coming shift in the generations of America. Local campaigns for transportation and city tax reform in the late 50’s were soon replaced with massive and violent campaigns for civil rights and peace protests, lead by the youth of the next generation. The idealism of the youth in the 1960’s was just around the corner.  

The song parodied the seed bed of revolution in Boston, the location of the Glorious Revolution in April of 1689 and the American Revolution 80 years later at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775. These great wheels of history turned on the idealism of the young. It was the youth who were the foot soldiers being led by magnetic older leaders. In later history this cycle continued with Churchill and the Battle of Britain, with FDR and Eisenhower and the GI’s in World War II, with Lincoln and young soldiers in the Civil War, and George Washington and his soldiers at Valley Forge. Of course it was young people the early 1960’s who listened to the Kingston Trio’s song.

Young idealists led by passionate elders is an old story dating from Homer’s Odysseus and his son. There is a mythic tale in “Twice-Told Tales” by Nathanial Hawthorne of an “ancient man, who was a “combined leader and saint.” The Grey Champion had the voice of a general in battle as well as a preacher in prayer. In Hawthorne’s story he rallies the Boston rebels on April 18th, 1689, to reverse the royal decrees of King James II and to return Boston and the colonies to more home rule.

Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe repeat the significance of the myth of the Grey Champion from Hawthorne. They see an alignment of generational cohorts in life-span cycles of history.  

For example, a younger generation, like the Boomers of the 60’s, were, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., said of his generation, “touched by fire.” As they have become the elders the three younger generations are aligned in the following way:  the managers and organizers (Generation X) have become the facilitators and supporters of the younger Millennials who have begun to see the failures of the former Boomer crusades. 

Millennials also see the coming “society-wide secular crisis”. The youngest generation, as we are seeing, becomes the symbolizer and the expressive voice of the crisis of the present time. These, no longer just children, are the “credulous youths in a world of powerful adults, (who) learn to trust conventions and prepare for ways to help others.” These are the Never Again gun protestors, the Black Lives Matter youth, and the young women in the #MeToo movement.

This is the time, Strauss and Howe write, “…when the Spirit of America reappears, rousting courage and fortitude from the people. Another Crisis era is coming—and soon.” (Page 271)

There is a vital role of the Grey Champions of this time to play. It has to do with reasserting values and reinforcing institutions and conventions that work in the name of the values that seared the Boomer and Prophet elders when they were the young fire brands.

The great danger here is that in the environment of this crisis the Generation X younger leaders could “emerge as the leaders of a Crisis-era populism based on the notion of taking raw action now and justifying it later. A charismatic anti-intellectual demagogue could convert the (the recent past advertising slogans)…”No excuses.” Why ask why?” “Just do it.” Start with a winner take all ethos that believes in action for action’s sake, exalts strength, elevates impulse, and hold weakness and compassion in contempt. Add class desperation, anti-rationalism, and perceptions of national decline. The product, at its most extreme, could be a new American fascism….” (Page 291)

These historians wrote this in 1997.  They add there is much to do and the elders have a vital role of leadership based on their age and their experience, but not their power, which is ebbing.

Their list for change to counter the worse of this crisis includes: 

Prepare Values: Forge the consensus and uplift the culture, but don’t expect near-term result.

Prepare institutions: Clear the debris and find out what works, but don’t try building anything big.

Prepare politics: Define challenges bluntly and stress duties over rights, but don’t attempt reforms that can’t now be accomplished. 

Prepare society: Require community teamwork to solve local problems, but don’t try this on a national scale.

Prepare youth: Treat children as the national highest priority, but don’t do their work for them.

Prepare elders: Tell future elders they will need to be more self-sufficient, but don’t attempt deep cuts in benefits to current elders.

Prepare the economy: Correct fundamentals, but don’t try to fine tune current performance. 

Prepare defense: Expect the worst and prepare to mobilize, but don’t pre-commit to any one response.

Rectify: Return to the classic virtues.  

Converge: Heed emerging community norms. 

Bond: Build personal relationships of all kinds. 

Gather: Prepare yourself and your children for team work.

Holmes said his generation was touched with fire, and it was. He himself was wounded many times in the Civil War, and he took the hard lessons into being a great dissenting Supreme Court judge. But it was Lincoln who said “the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”

We have, then, been more than touched by fire. The burning of the Civil Rights eras, the apocalypse of the Vietnam Era, the phony peace of the 80’s and the heady boom of the 90s have left many empty of pride and yet still full of conviction. Once we were in the fiery trial, and now we have a chance to share the light and the refined spirit. 

There were prophets as we were raised and we are those prophets now. We have much to say and to share, but not to control or even to do. We can be the light at the end of the tunnel, for we ourselves emerged out of a great darkness. 

This is the time for the Grey Champion to champion values and the common good. These really are the times that try men’s souls. Our time is now, the fire this time.